To one extent or another, Kelly Reichardt’s films are about unsettled people contending with nature, whether the outdoors are a pretext for conversation (Old Joy), a temporary bog for the economically desperate (Wendy And Lucy), or a merciless expanse for pioneers seeking a new life (Meek’s Cutoff). For the three environmental activists in Reichardt’s slooooow-burn thriller Night Moves, the world has been hijacked by those who, in the words of one of them, “kill salmon so they can run their fucking iPods every second of the day.” With the planet at the tipping point, ineffectual protests won’t do—it’s time to think globally, act drastically.
Reichardt and her writing partner, Jon Raymond, connect to some degree with the trio’s desperation, just as they connected with the plight of a stranded young woman in Wendy And Lucy, or those perilously lost on the Oregon Trail in Meek’s Cutoff. Yet they approach the story from a marked distance, cooly assessing the means through which these activists commit a terrorist act, and the severe moral consequences that follow. Night Moves is a film of deliberate, gnawing intensity and focus, built around a Jesse Eisenberg performance that doesn’t give much away, at least not easily. As Josh, a loner who logs time on an organic farm in Oregon, Eisenberg isn’t playing much of a proselytizer—the iPod line, spat under his breath, is as political as he gets—but he’s firm in both following through on the plan and in dealing with its messy aftermath. Reichardt and Raymond go about their business with a similarly cagey dispassion.
Without quite going so far as to superimpose the relevant pages in The Anarchist Cookbook, Night Moves devotes itself to explaining how three people could blow up a hydroelectric dam. It starts with Josh and Dena (Dakota Fanning) buying a small boat with cash and heading into the woods to meet a third conspirator, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-Marine (and ex-con) who’s there with fake IDs and the necessary munitions experience. Their plan is to pack the boat with 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, drive it out to the dam under cover of darkness, and return to their jobs the next morning, after the explosion has made national news—and, presumably, shifted the conversation on environmental issues. Best laid plans, etc.
Though Night Moves doesn’t operate like a conventional thriller, eco or otherwise—for that, see last year’s The East (or don’t)—Reichardt is a master director, capable of turning the mundane business of buying the fertilizer into a white-knuckle suspense setpiece. When Dena tries to persuade a skeptical manager (James Le Gros) into releasing the fertilizer for her 10 imaginary acres of veggies, Reichardt treats the scene with the same lack of inflection that characterizes the rest of the film. This is just one perilous step in a plan full of them, and it doesn’t need any added emphasis from her to make the audience aware of how high the stakes are. Even if she gets the material she needs, every second she spends in that office deepens her impression on him.
The careful lead-up to the bombing takes up the strongest—and longest—section of Night Moves, and makes the film a more straight-faced companion to Blue Ruin, the darkly comic thriller that also made the festival rounds last year before recently surfacing in theaters. Both are about amateurs carrying out crime with righteous intent, but in Reichardt’s case, the screw-ups are more subtle and spread out, like the accumulation of witnesses, from the suburbanite who puzzles over the stack of cash he’s given for his boat to the busboy who served time with Harmon in jail. The prosecution of the crime can be imagined as it’s in the process of being committed.
For Reichardt, though, the real prosecution turns inward, when the fallout from the trio’s actions reveal their true character. Here, Eisenberg’s performance yields perhaps too little: It’s hard to fathom whether Josh starts as a misanthrope or an idealist, which then makes it hard to figure out whether his desperate acts are the result of someone who’s been changed by this experience, or who’s showing us who he’s been all along. Either way, Night Moves seems to figure his enigmatic presence into its overall design, which approaches radical action with the same chilling detachment from beginning to end. Josh, Dena, and Harmon are trying to make a difference. Reichardt sees their efforts through to the bitter end.